There’s nothing Hannah and I love more than a creepy tomb, peculiar work of art, or good conspiracy theory. Considering we’ve already covered our favorite cemetery and the graves of some famous artists, you should be fair warned of our love for the slightly ghoulish.
Luckily Mannerist forerunner Andrea del Sarto also had an affinity for the off-kilter (just check out the harpies on the base of this Madonna). So when a group of barefoot-loving followers of St. John the Baptist came a-knockin’, he decided to help some brothers out. Between 1509 and 1526, he frescoed the cloister of the barefooted, il Chiostro dello Scalzo.
Distance: 800 m from city center (about .5 mile)
Time: 10 minutes
To say that this is one of Florence’s hidden gems is an understatement. It is right on Via Cavour, just down the block from San Marco, a popular neighborhood for tourists and a short jaunt from city center. Yet few rarely set out to discover this quietly celebrated spot.
Its low profile is partly due to its limited hours – Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays from 8:15am – 1:50pm. At all other times, it looks like a very charming, very closed Renaissance doorway – of which Florence has more than a few. Passersby barely take note and move on.
Those who do seek it out, however, should prepare to be wowed. Even with free entry, the small room is often empty, and the guards on duty, grateful for company, often spill secrets about the surroundings.
Del Sarto frescoed the walls in a monochrome palette with scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist (two of which were painted by his friend Franciabigio). They line what was the entrance to the confraternity chapel (whose door is now cemented shut at the room’s far end), encouraging members to contemplate the saint’s life as they came, gathered, and left.
Del Sarto sure knew what he was doing. He managed to make figures look monumental, a nod to Michelangelo, yet remarkably human, à la Da Vinci, both of whom were del Sarto’s contemporaries. Note how he depicted the intensity and immediacy of St. John’s beheading without relying on color to evoke emotion (detailed photos of more scenes here).
Some things to remember. When del Sarto was painting, there was no loggia (and consequently no decorative skulls or crossbones). A quick look up at today’s glass ceiling confirms there was only a partial roof here for centuries (during which time the barefooters were told to put an egg in their imaginary shoes and beat it). The vaulted structure was built later to shield deteriorating frescoes from harmful environmental elements.
According to Tuscany Arts, the frescoes continued to suffer despite the added coverage, leading the Soprintendenza (Florence’s art-world overlords) to remove them for restoration around 1960. They weren’t returned and approved for public display until 2000, which in Florentine history might as well be last week. No wonder the space is so often forgotten!
Visitors should take advantage of its emptiness, because we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s here to uncover. And while we have high hopes of mediocre fame for this blog, low readership would be a small price to pay to keep this favorite place our special secret.